Saturday, March 25, 2017

Anywhere But Here

A screen can prove irresistible even while being rowed across the Grand Canal...

I'm aware that some people--maybe even the majority--visit blogs like this one because it's a chance to catch up on a place they'd like to be but aren't. It's certainly one of the things that led me to blogs on Venice before we actually lived here. And the thought of this gives me pause when I find myself reading a book or an e-book on a vaporetto as it passes by, say, the Doges' Palace and Piazza San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute and all the other sights I myself once longed to behold in person when I was in fact far away from them. I know that we get used to any- and everything. But should we?

Consider the image above. Let's assume the person standing in the center of the Santa Sophia traghetto in the slightly hunched screen-focused posture that defines our times is in the midst of her commute to or from work, in which the short passage across the Grand Canal is a link. Commuters everywhere take refuge in their screens, just as they previously took refuge in the printed page of newspapers, magazines, or books. And yet to spend the mere 30 seconds or so it takes to be rowed across one of the world's most famous and picturesque waterways/avenues focused on a small screen seems like a bad idea to me. 

Perhaps in this case it was some pressing matter that couldn't be delayed even half a minute. Okay. But in my own case I marvel at how the definition of "pressing" and "imperative" has expanded when it comes to screens--and I don't even have a smart phone.

And I wonder about how dramatically the constant temptation of screens, which lure us with the promise of information in "real time" or "as it happens"--something newspapers could never do--have destroyed our sense of place.

"How do you like your new apartment?" I'm asked, and though I can answer in any number of ways I'm not sure I can feel the experience of this very particular place as I once could. I trust, or hope, that I just need more time in it and that it will come.

But at the risk of stating the obvious, how different it feels to live in Venice now than it did 25 years ago. Not just because of the way Venice has changed but because of the way technology has changed our sense of place. Or maybe it's only mine.

25 years ago Venice was much more distant from the life I'd left behind in the US. And it was a much less clamorous place--not objectively, acoustically, but, well, inside my own head.

I'm afraid this threatens to turn into a long dull post--Paul Valéry, WD Howells, the French theorist Paul Virilio,* and a host of others are hovering allusively around its yet unwritten edges, and I think it best to keep them out. But isn't it odd that we pay so much to travel to distant places and then spend much of our time worrying about wi-fi access to keep us in touch with the place we've just left--and a thousand other places besides?

"To be everywhere is to be nowhere," Seneca warned in a line that took on new meaning with the coming of the internet. And to be everywhere at once never seemed especially satisfying even for the Almighty Himself; that Great Being defined by His ubiquity who, like the earliest recorded adapter of Facebook, seemed in frequent if not constant need of attention, praise and adoration.

...or on the outside seats at the back of a vaporetto

Note: * "In the opening section of The Lost Dimension [published in France way back in 1984], Virilio sets up his polemic about the 'disappearance' and 'loss' of architectonic dimension. The screen [film, tv or early computer] is an 'interface' which relies on a 'visibility without any face-to-face encounter, in which the vis-a-vis of the ancient streets disappears and is erased.' The polis, agora and forum have been replaced by the screen. ... Virilio writes: 'With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.'" 
                                                            --From a 2004 essay on Virilio by Anne Friedberg



  1. First....that is one gorgeous photo at the top even if she is looking at her phone!
    I am in my beloved Venezia right now...stay in an apartment in the Molino Stucky complex because it was cheap. It's a nice apartment but I am too far from the beating heart of Venice and I'm temporarily disabled (walking with a cane) that makes it hard to get around but I do.
    Your blog is long, yes, but well put. We tend to neglect things around us. This past year or so has taught me to appreciate things I see out my own window besides the windows I travel to (I have a view of the wall of the Hilton here),
    But I must share with the what I saw the other afternoon coming "home" to Sacca postino with his cart boarded the vaporetto and took out of the bag on the back a huge hardbound book and proceeded to read while waiting for his stop. Rather than an electronic screen his nose was in a "real" book. I was so impressed. But I wonder...if I lived here would these things around me become common place and would I have my face buried in my phone? Although I am noticing more tourist couples wandering hand in hand looking around, when in 2013 (my last visit) most of them had their phones and were even texting each other standing side by side.
    And I thought I was the last person on the planet to get a smart phone.

    1. I'm sorry to hear your mobility is a little limited on this visit, Michelle, Venice isn't the easiest place to find oneself in such a case--though the ramps on the big bridges along the Riva make it a little better these days.

      To haul a hardbound book around with one shows real dedication to the printed word; though the postino was lucky to have a cart with him for his work in any case. Is being distracted by the printed word "better" than being distracted by the digital word? I don't know that either is actually a problem. But when you write a blog in which you hear from people in other places who wish (often quite passionately) that they themselves were in the place you are and seeing what you have the chance to see (and take for granted), it makes you wonder if you're taking for granted too much at times.

      Thanks for your comment, and, as you've probably noticed, the Giudecca has its own beating heart. And some would even say that for those looking for the beating heart of Venice (local life), the Giudecca is one of the best places to find it.

    2. I really do love Sacca does have it's own beating heart and wonderfully kind people who enjoy a chat and letting me practice my Italian. I'm going to miss the Friday market. And it has it's own culture. I saw a sign on the vaporetto (now that I'm reading Italian better than in 2008) for dance classes...ballroom etc. And at the bar near the market I can sit at a table and have a cappuccino for only 1.50 Euro. I could probably live there very comfortably.

    3. It's definitely it's own place, Sacca Fisola--though not to everyone's liking. I just encountered someone who was happy to have made a recent move from there to Lido, but that may have had as much to do with her particular living situation on Sacca Fisola as with the broader scene. I'm glad you enjoyed it there. It's that paradox common in Venice that the scenic places most publicized as being "Venetian" are now often empty of Venetians, while the newer, less scenic places are where local life can still be found.

  2. That is a fantastic photo. Again I had to zoom in, on my smartphone (whisper!), to get the point but that makes it all the more powerful.

    1. Thank you, Rosalind; it was actually quite dark and the shutter speed needed to be so slow to let in enough light that I think the figures are a bit blurred, but I'm glad the image comes across anyway. Sometimes I think it's hard to take a bad photo in any number of places in Venice.

  3. So true. Brilliantly said.
    Presence in all we do, presence in every breath, presence when listening to the other. That's the only true way to live, a key to happiness.
    Venice is never the same. Everyday, she changes. The color of the sky at sunset, the clouds, the dance of light and shadows are like costumes the pretty Venice wears and changes everyday, every moment of the day.
    It is unfortunate that most people who have the chance to see her are looking somewhere else.

    1. Thanks very much, Line; I'll admit I'm often one of those thinking of something else if not looking at something else as I go around Venice. Presence is a hard thing to maintain and, ironically, sometimes what we go in search of when we go on a trip is something we've already seen before we got there, that made us want to go in the first place, and that we hope in a sense perhaps to have "confirmed" in person, or to experience for ourselves.

      But you're really right about how Venice changes; even after 6 years of living here--or maybe *especially* after 6 years--I'm repeatedly struck by that fact. On some days, hour by hour, you seem to find yourself in a new place, even if you haven't moved a foot.

  4. Hi

    An intersting post. I know that when my wife and I spend the summer at the cabin we only use the solar panels for lights. charging tools and of course charging computers and phones. We also have make sure that we have internet access through our phone service. The only man made object we can see is the distant light of a cell phone tower over the trees.

    However the need to walk the dogs, the limits on our data plan, taking photos of wildlife do keep us present in the landscape for a far bit of time. But it is always I think a case that we take much of what we see and have for granted even if it was something we once really desired. It is also true I think that for all it's benefits constant connection is also the cause of much of our anxiety. Still somedays I look at the moon in the day time and realize that we are also on a ball spinning in space and I am reminded of how wonderfully unlikely the whole thing seems.


    1. I think it's extremely hard not to take things for granted, Guy, at least some times, if not much of the time. I don't think it's a moral failing not to be "present", but I still find it surprising how very hard it is to do in any case (at least for me) and if it's become even harder with new technology.

      Each person has to work out their own relationship with new technology, whether the constant sense of connection heightens rather than lessens anxiety, as you suggest (and as I feel myself--though others don't). But of course for a lot of people, how much they have to interact with a screen or be constantly connected is determined by work demands, so it's not so easy in that case.

  5. Bondì Siór Nonloso, :)

    A beautiful picture with a thought-provoking post to go with it. Are we all turning into squint-eyed hunchbacks forever staring at some mind-numbing screen or could there be an upside as well? In the Veneto at least hunchbacks are considered lucky so maybe thats a small upside to it? :D
    Of course I, too, see the risks with exessive or even obsessive focus on the screen but is it really that bad? Say you´re going on the traghetto twice a day and you take the time to text your wife to remember to buy some Parmigiano Regiano och jot down a note on something you forgot to do? I can however agree with you, and Ecclesiastes, that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens and maybe sometimes the time is not right for crawling into a phone, pad or whatever. My daughter, who is five, has been listening to stories and watching cartoons in Chinese and English on her iPad, under our supervision of course, and I'm impressed by her proficiency. I'm not saying that little screens are the best inventions since sliced bread, but I have at least begun to let my guard down a bit and read my newspaper on the train from my phone rather than unfolding the paper edition. :)


  6. There are certainly very noticeable advantages, Andreas, to reading the news on a screen rather than in a newspaper during a commute! Though the sentimentalist in me fondly recalls how not so long ago it was considered to be the true mark of a "real" New Yorker that s/he had perfected a certain method of folding their newspaper on the subway that reduced its dimensions while still allowing its pages to be turned. (Something I never learned, much as I considered myself a New Yorker, and still do.)

    Though, speaking only for myself, I wonder about whether my retention of what I read on a screen is as good as it is when I read from paper. I suspect in my own case it requires more effort to stay focused, not to follow a chain of hyperlinks to who knows where.

    But I can't suggest screens are inherently or necessarily "bad." I think it's pretty amazing that I could in the post above link directly to a scholarly article which, pre-internet, would have been bound tightly within a journal that very few of us would ever have had the chance of happening upon--not to mention what your young daughter has been learning. And how amazing is it to have something like the following readily at hand for the cost of 14 euros!:

    Already prone to absenting myself from a place, I worry about doing so more. For others who are more "grounded" this may not even come up as a concern. And in terms of speaking of others as others (rather than gauging their own subjectivity by one's own), I guess all I can say is that the prevalence of screens can in its own way seem to "empty out", say, a campo. If enough people are focused on their screens it's not hard to imagine a campiello filled with a dozen people which nevertheless, for the purposes of actual on-site interaction, feels quite empty.

  7. But isn't it a bit odd that we put so much weight on the media? If someone on the vaporetto was reading Shakespeare's Sonnets from a leather-bound book they would surely be perceived differently than if they were reading the same from an IPhone? But they don't have TwitFaceGram in leather-bound volumes I suppose?

    1. I'm sure there must be boutiques somewhere--or many places--offering expensively tooled leather covers for various electronic devices upon which one could read Shakespeare's sonnets, but, no, I suppose that wouldn't change one's opinion as long as a screen was still involved.